CHINESE AUTHORITIES HAVE a delicate balancing act to pull off regarding the World Health Organisation (WHO) international team now its visit to Wuhan to investigate the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic is at an end.
Authorities need to be seen as open, transparent and cooperative with the long-delayed investigation in line with China’s self-projection as a good international citizen. Yet they also need to ensure there is no undermining of the official narrative:
- that the virus originated outside China;
- that the initial infections in humans did not follow an escape of the virus from a bio-research lab in Wuhan; and
- that there was no cover-up or mishandling of the initial outbreak.
More broadly, the official narrative attributes the country’s success in dealing with the pandemic to the Party’s leadership under President XiJinping.
The WHO’s experts were at work in the country for four weeks, the first two by video from quarantine, and have been making the right noises about being given access to sites in Wuhan that they had requested, albeit chaperoned by their hosts.
However, one of the team, Dominic Dwyer, an Australian microbiologist, has said that China has declined a request to hand over the raw data on 174 early cases, furnishing only a summary. A colleague, John Watson, trying to defuse a potential flare-up over this, inadvertently confirmed Dwyer’s charge by saying that while the team had seen some data about those 174 cases:
There is more data that we would like the opportunity to see, and it would be easier if we had that…There were restrictions in what we were able to do, [but] that would have been the case if we were there or in another country.
Dwyer has subsequently said that the team saw a lot of data new to the WHO, the unstated implication being that China had hitherto kept it under wraps.
A State Council task force reporting to Xi has vetted all Covid-19 research since being set up in March 2020. Xi faced elite-level criticism of his initial handling of the pandemic, but he has now got that firmly in hand, and the information flow is being controlled top-down. China’s extensive investigation into the origins of the outbreak has generated minimal published papers.
Once finally published, the WHO report will undoubtedly be a finely-tuned exercise in political fence-sitting, having to straddle protecting the organisation’s credibility and not upsetting an important patron.
However, it appears that the WHO team leans towards the theory that the virus probably originated in the jungles of Southeast Asia and jumped to humans via an unknown animal intermediary. It does not rule out that it arrived in the country from abroad on frozen or refrigerated food, which will please the hosts. However, that begs the question of why the infection was not detected elsewhere before the first cases were identified in Wuhan in November 2019.
The WHO team also dismisses the escape-from-a-lab theory and sees the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan as the multiplier that turned some infections into a pandemic. How it got there in the first place, and whence it came remain the key questions, along with whether early carriers were asymptomatic, in what number and for how long
This Bystander expects, the WHO to ignore any of the wilder theories that Chinese propagandists have advanced, and some will likely continue to advance including that the virus was created by the US military. This Bystander is sure that the WHO in its summary report expected shortly and subsequent full report will conclude that it will require many more years of study to understand the origins of the outbreak.
China will be happy with that can-kicking. It is taking the stance that the China-leg of a global investigation into the origins of the virus is now over and will claim that, as it said, that there was nothing new there to see; time to move the investigation to other countries, notably the United States.
The Biden administration says it will not accept the WHO report unless its intelligence services can verify it. That lets Beijing shift the focus from the substance of the WHO team’s findings to an even larger narrative about US prejudice against it by accusing Washington of undermining the WHO and those who support it.